Solutions to today's most complex sustainability challenges require new interaction models between university researchers and decision-makers in government, corporations, and nongovernmental organizations. The problem is that traditional research models rarely produce knowledge with the relevance and speed sufficient to inform decision-making in government and corporations. David M. Lodge, the Francis J. DiSalvo Director of Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability and faculty member in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (CALS), helped overcome these issues in order to reduce the introduction, spread and impact of invasive species in the North American Great Lakes.
Sea Lamprey, Zebra and Quagga Mussels, Phragmites and many other invasive species cost the Great Lakes regional economy 100s of millions of dollars annually, while many new species, like Asian carps, threaten to arrive and spread each year.
Lodge led multiple research projects funded by NOAA and the EPA Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. In collaboration with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Lodge and his fellow researchers invited representatives from 30 Canadian provincial agencies and US state and federal management agencies to help shape the research questions asked. The researchers gained the satisfaction of knowing that their work was more likely to be useful, while the managers gained regular access to researcher insight. Both parties had increased confidence that research results would be actionable.
"These projects benefitted from the interest and financial support from our funding agencies to synergize collaboration between our research teams and the management agencies," says Lodge. "TNC acted as a bridging organization—an organization familiar with the language of both science and management, and trusted by all parties."
Because of the co-production of research during the seven-year effort, multiple federal and state agencies implemented technological innovations in the use of environmental DNA, or eDNA, to detect the presence of harmful species. They also adopted decision support tools that make risk assessment of invasive species more accurate and timelier.
Finally, interdisciplinary work among the researchers provided economic guidance on which management choices were most likely to give the greatest bang for the buck, allowing government agencies to be more effective and efficient. Breakthrough research results were implemented—or at least began to influence decision-makers--almost immediately.
An additional benefit of this model was that Canadian and US researchers better coordinated their management efforts on the Great Lakes they share. Also, the annual meeting of all the researchers and government participants, plus abundant communication throughout the year, allowed the US states to begin to adopt more convergent policies in the knowledge that weak practices in one state imperiled other states. While humans care a great deal about political jurisdictions, invasive species do not recognize such boundaries at all.
“Without regular formal and informal communication among researchers and managers, the knowledge and trust necessary for robust discussion and decision making cannot occur,” says Lodge. "The interactions promoted by our co-production model allowed for productive research and implementation.”
"The experience of my scientific and management collaborators suggests that this model of co-production is applicable across many research fields where research is needed to inform urgent decisions about natural resource management."
Co-PIs on the research include participants from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, The Nature Conservancy, the University of Toledo, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Loyola University Chicago, USDA Forest Service, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the University of Notre Dame, and Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, the hub of collaborative sustainability research at Cornell University.